A Diamond in the Roof: Common Roof Types.

As we’ve noted before, houses come in infinite styles, plans, and configurations.  It can be hard to keep track of the different types of housing stock out there.  The American domestic architectural gods have given us one reprieve, though: generally speaking, there are just a few major roof types found on a wide range of house styles across the country.  Lucky us.

Here are some of the most ubiquitous roof types:


Flat roof are commonly found in urban townhouses.

Flat roofs are commonly found in urban townhouses.


This flat roof has a silver coating to reflect sunlight and mitigate heat absorption.

Let’s start out simple.  How to describe a flat roof?  Well, it’s flat.  Sometimes there’s a slight downward slope toward the back of the building facilitate drainage, but that’s about it.  Flat roofs are incredibly common in Chicago proper due in part to the thousands of two- and three-flat buildings in the city.

Flat roofs are often obscured from the street by a parapet wall or elaborate cornice.  Or both — the parapet is that 3-5 foot portion of wall that extends above the roofline, and the cornice is that decorative thing attached to it sometimes.  As you can imagine, the roofing material on a flat roof isn’t so cosmetically pleasing, and is chosen for weatherproofing purposes.

Fun Fact!: As you ride the El, you’ll probably notice that some are covered in tar, and others are painted white or silver-ish.  The tar was usually laid over asphalt sheeting to seal any seams starting in the 1890s/1900s, but it absorbed an incredible amount of heat, so homeowners have begun painting their flat roofs white in an attempt to deflect the mighty sun over the past two decades or so.  Our flat friends are also great candidates for green roofing, especially on larger commercial buildings.


The Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio is a good example of a cross-gable plan with a prominent front-facing gable.

The Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio is a good example of a cross-gable plan with a prominent front-facing gable.

Heres the House of the Seven Gables in Salem, MA. Fun game: How many can you spot?

Here’s the House of the Seven Gables in Salem, MA. Fun architecture-nerd game: How many can you spot?

Imagine you’re a child, and you’ve been asked to draw a house.  Chances are, your little house is going to have a gable roof — you know, a square with a triangle on top.

A gable roof is one where there are two pitched sides that meet in the center at a ridge.  Technically, the gable is the triangular portion of the elevation that rises to the ridge.  Cross-gable roofs are also very common, and occur when two gables intersect.

Fun Fact!: Gable roofs are far and away the most likely to have dormers on their pitched sides.  Dormers were an easy way to add sleeping quarters — hence the name — and dormer additions to cottages and bungalows continue to be one of the more common proposals seen by Chicago’s Landmarks Commission.


Hipped roofs are often combined with gables, as in this house.

Hipped roofs are often combined with gables, as in this house.

Also called a hip roof, this kind of roof has four sides that slope back to meet at a ridge.  Each of the four rides usually slopes at the same angle, lending nice symmetry and simplicity to the design.  Hipped roofs usually top simple, rectangular plans, so the two long sides meet at a ridge, and the two short sides meet either end of that ridge.  The “hip” is the part where two of the four sides meet.

This type is very common in American foursquares, and in this type, all four sides meet at in the center.  This is sometimes called a pyramid roof.

Fun Fact: Although hipped roofs are fairly common, they do not allow for as much livable space at the attic level due to the steep slope around the perimeter of the roof.


Notice how many dormers there are and how fancy they look -- an American addition to the style.

Notice how many dormers there are and how fancy they look — an American addition to the style.

I know you already know all about these from our discussion about Second Empire architecture in last week’s Victorian styles post, but let’s review.  The mansard roof is trapezoidal in shape when viewed in elevation, with four gambrel sides.  Usually, a mansard roof has at least a few dormers, which allows its interior to serve as functional living space.

Strictly speaking, your traditional mansard roof will have two shallow pitches that are either not visible or partially obscured from the street.  As the style migrated from France to the U.S., many American builders flattened the double pitch.

Fun fact: Where did the term “mansard” come from?  So glad you asked.  Francois Mansart was a 17th century French architect who popularized the roof style during his career.  The story goes that the city of Paris restructured its tax code, so that building owners would be taxed for every story except the basement and attic.  Mansart designed a roof that rose high enough to accommodate a garret, but not so high that it would count as an additional story.  A landlord could make a straight profit off of the attic by renting it tax-free.  That’s where the idea of an artist’s garret comes from: the quarters inside a mansard roof were usually the cheapest, and were just about all a starving artist could afford.


Textbook gambrel, yall.

Textbook gambrel, y’all.


Heres a good example of an early New York house built by Dutch settlers.

We just mentioned that mansard roofs are characterized by their gambrel-style sides, but that ‘s not so helpful if “gambrel” isn’t in your vocab rotation.  The gambrel shape is sort of hard to describe, and perhaps the best way to remember it is it’s the style of roof you see on barns.  That is, there are two gable ends, and the roof itself is composed of one shallow pitch at the top, and two steeper, mansard-like sides that meet the walls.  The chief difference between gambrel and mansard, aside from the gable ends, is that a gambrel roof usually hangs over the facade, while a mansard merely meets it.

As with the mansard roof, the gambrel shape was designed to maximize usable interior space.  That’s why you see it in so many barns — it allowed for a sizable hay loft.  Architectural historians can’t seem to come to a consensus as to which cultural group brought the gambrel to the U.S., and there is evidence of gambrel-ed structures built by Spanish, English, French, and Dutch settlers in early America.  These days, we call a Colonial Revival house with a gambrel roof a Dutch Colonial.

Fun, kind of gruesome fact:  Europeans just call gambrels “curbs.”  How boring.  We Americans like a little more etymological zest. “Gambrel” is a Norman English word that refers to the beam from which a butcher would hang slaughtered animals for dressing.  People who study this kind of thing aren’t sure if we get the term “gambrel” from that delightful context, or if it instead come from the Latin “gambra,” for a horse’s ankle joint.  All they know is we’re the first ones to use it to refer to this roof type.

On that anatomical note, maybe it’s best we adjourn.

Next up:  What’s it worth? We examine the effects of landmark designation on property values.

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